Joseph John Campbell was best known as an American mythology professor, writer, and orator. He became renowned for his work in the fields of comparative mythology and religion.
On March 26, 1904, Joseph John Campbell was born in White Plains, NY. Joe, as he came to be known, was the first child of a Roman Catholic couple, Charles and Josephine Campbell. Joe’s earliest years appear to be largely unremarkable; but then, when he was seven years old, his father took him and his younger brother, Charlie, to see Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. This evening would be a high-point in Joe’s life; for, although the cowboys were clearly the show’s stars, as Joe would later write, he “became fascinated, seized, obsessed, by the figure of a naked American Indian with his ear to the ground, a bow and arrow in his hand, and a look of special knowledge in his eyes.”
Joseph Campbell became consumed with Native American culture; and his world view was arguably shaped by the dynamic tension between the faith of his forebears and his newfound appreciation and knowledge of the Native American culture. Joe had read every book on American Indians in the children’s section of his local library by the age of 10 and was admitted to the adult stacks, where he eventually read the entire multi-volume Reports of the Bureau of American Ethnology. He immersed himself in every aspect of the culture he had grown to love and began frequenting the American Museum of Natural History, where he became fascinated with totem poles and masks, thus beginning a lifelong exploration of that museum’s vast collection.
Joe’s mother enrolled him at Canterbury, a Catholic residential school in New Milford CT. His high school years were rich and rewarding, even though they marked by a major tragedy: in 1919, the Campbell home was consumed by a fire that killed his grandmother and destroyed all of the family’s possessions. Joe graduated from Canterbury in 1921, and the following September, entered Dartmouth College. He was soon disillusioned with the social scene and disappointed by a lack of academic rigor, so he transferred to Columbia University, where he excelled. He specialized in medieval literature, played in a jazz band, and became a star runner. After earning a B.A. from Columbia (1925), and receiving an M.A. (1927) for his work in Arthurian Studies, Joe was awarded a Proudfit Traveling Fellowship to continue his studies at the University of Paris (1927-28). After he then received and rejected an offer to teach at his high school alma mater his Fellowship was renewed, and he traveled to Germany to resume his studies at the University of Munich (1928-29). While in Germany he became familiar with the modernists who whose art and insights would greatly influence his own work.
After Joe returned from Europe he was at a crossroads as to what he should do. Few teaching positions were open during the Great Depression. He spent the next two years reconnecting with his family and making journal entries. Then, late in 1931, after rejecting the possibility of a doctoral program or teaching job at Columbia, he decided, like countless young men before and since, to “hit the road,” to undertake a cross-country journey to perhaps discover the purpose of his life. It was during this odyssey that his writing career began in earnest. He continued to write to some seventy colleges in attempt to secure employment and was finally offered a position at Canterbury School. After an unhappy year there in 1933, he moved to a cottage without running water on Maverick Road in Woodstock NY, where he spent a year reading and writing. In 1934, he was offered and did accept a position in the literature department at Sarah Lawrence College, a post he would retain for thirty-eight years. He would retire from Sarah Lawrence in 1972 to devote himself full-time to his writing.
In 1938 he married Jean Erdman, one of his students who would become a major presence in the emerging field of modern dance, first, as a star dancer in Martha Graham’s fledgling troupe, and later, as dancer/choreographer of her own company.
But his many writings notwithstanding, it was arguably as a public speaker that Joe had his greatest popular impact. From his first public lecture in 1940 it was apparent that he was an erudite but accessible lecturer, a gifted storyteller. In 1956, he was invited to speak at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute where working without notes, he delivered two straight days of lectures. His talks were so universally well-received, he was invited back annually for the next seventeen years. He would remain a highly popular and sought after speaker for many years.
Joseph Campbell died at the age of 83 on October 30, 1987, at his home in Honolulu, Hawaii, from complications due to esophageal cancer with his wife Jean at his side.